Eddie 'EJ' Connellan - Pioneer Aviator

Flynn Church
Eddie editing this story.
John Flynn
The old Connellan Airstrip at Araluen

The founder of Connellan Airways, Eddie "E.J." Connellan, came to the Northern Territory in search of a cattle station in 1938. He flew his Spartan bi-plane from Essendon Airport in Melbourne to begin a 40,000 mile survey of the Territory's grazing and aviation potential.
A Member of a New South Wales pastoral family, he reported to the then Minister for the Interior, John McEwan, on the potential for development. During the survey he met up with McEwan and was asked to start an aerial mail run around the Territory. He agreed to try it for three years and a contract price of $3,000 per annum was negotiated, an additional $2,000 a year would come from the Royal Flying Doctor Service contract. Connellan bought two Percival Gull 6 planes and arranged for his brother Vin and N.S.W. grazier friends, Fred and Geoff O'Keefe to join him. They would assist in the establishment of the airways, then take on the development of the virgin country he had selected to be his cattle station, Narwietooma.
At the time there were no airstrips on the mail or medical runs and 'E.J.', assisted by Vin and the O'Keefes, ranged over Central Australia and through the Tanami Desert to Western Australia, preparing crude aerodromes with his 1919 Silver Ghost Rolls Royce, surely one of the most unique aerodrome construction vehicles ever used.
On July 10th, 1939, aged 27, Connellan took his single engine Gull out of Alice Springs on a 2,000 mile return mail flight to Wyndham, via stations, and the airline became operational, By August 27th the fledgling firm had flown 3 mail runs to Wyndham and 3 medical missions for the Flying Doctor Service.
In addition to Vin and the O'Keefes, an engineer-pilot, Jack Kellow made up the early staff of the airline. At Christmas 1939 he was joined by Melbourne men Damien Miller and Sam Calder, who, after the war, returned as pilots. Miller became a major shareholder of the airline in 1951 and owner of Hamilton Downs station shortly after, Calder later became the Federal Member for the Northern Territory. Engineer Jack Pennington joined the firm late 1939 and Kellow left in 1940.
In September of 1939 war was declared and Connellan and his friends volunteered for service. All except Connellan were accepted and 'E.J.' was commissioned into the R.A.A.F. Reserve with instructions to keep the mail and medical runs operating, and to carry out special duties for the Army and R.A.A.F.. From 1940 until 1945, Eddie Connellan flew the ever increasing mail runs by himself, in addition to supplying army units in the north, surveying aerodrome sites for the R.A.A.F., and some how finding time to develop an aerial photographic technique for the army.
During 1943 Connellan kept flying despite an acute attack of appendicitis, until another severe attack near the West Australian border forced him to turn back to Alice Springs. Unable to leave the cockpit at refuelling stops, the station men filled his tanks and hand started the motor for him. He was operated on that night and 17 days later was back on double shifts to catch up on the backlog of mail and supplies. By now the Wyndham run had grown from a fortnightly to a weekly service covering 2,700 miles, with 36 landings. Accordingly, the contract payment had increased to $10,000 a year.
In 1944 he bought a Hawk Moth, 6 passenger monoplane which had been owned by Kingsford-Smith. Underpowered in the engine, the innovative Connellan replaced this motor with a 340 horsepower, ex R.A.A.F.Armstrong-Siddely Cheetah IX motor. The plane proved to be ideal for the conditions, particularly groundwork on the rough bush airstrips. In 1948 Connellan again upgraded with the addition of twin-engine De Havelland Rapides. These were ideal except for their wood and fabric construction which tended to catch fire in the searing temperatures of Northern Australia. In 1951, at Turkey Creek, 'E.J.'just managed to scramble clear when a gust of wind fanned flames from the exhaust onto the aircraft's skin. The plane incinerated in minutes.
In 1955 the first all metal Beechcraft 18 was bought and later, two more were added. In 1960 the more modern Beechcraft Travelair and Baron aircraft were introduced, and in 1963 the first 4 engine Heron was purchased from Air India.
Eddie's son Roger was co-pilot on the India-Alice Springs delivery of the plane. His promising career as Operations Manager, and future General Manager with the company was tragically cut short when a maniac ex-employee of the company stole a plane from Wyndham and deliberately flew it into the Connellan offices at the Alice Springs airport killing himself. Roger Connellan and three other staff members.
In the 1960's Connellan Airways was serving 132 places on schedules ranging from weekly to four times a day. The destinations included Ayers Rock, Tennant Creek, Katherine, Darwin, Mount Isa and Kunurra, as well as charter flights. It still maintained the mail and medical flights and employed some 100 people, including the first Australian commercially licensed woman pilot in air transport, Christine Davies.
In 1951 Connellan Airways became a private company and in March 1980, East West Airlines purchased the company and changed the name to Northern Airlines. The pioneering era of Eddie Connellan in the Northern Territory was at an end.
'E.J.' died from cancer just before Christmas in 1983. This story was edited by him just prior to his death.

Copyright Peter W. Wilkins